The Trial [DVD]
Director : Orson Welles
Screenplay : Orson Welles (based on the novel by Franz Kafka)
MPAA Rating : NR
Year of Release : 1963
Stars : Anthony Perkins (Joseph K.), Arnoldo Foà (Inspector A), Jess Hahn (Second Assistant Inspector), William Kearns (First Assistant Inspector), Madeleine Robinson (Mrs. Grubach), Jeanne Moreau (Miss Burstner), Romy Schneider (Leni), Orson Welles (The Advocate)
The Stranger is often referred to as Orson Welles' least personal film, and judging by the work itself, that is an apt description. A solid piece of postwar genre work about a Nazi hiding in bucolic small-town America, The Stranger is not unique enough to stand out from the crowd, especially not in the manner that Welles' great masterpieces stand out. As critic James Agree wrote about it in The Nation when it was first released, "There is nothing in the picture that even appears to be 'important' or 'new,' but there is nothing pretentious or arty either ..." For some, The Stranger was a betrayal of Welles' great filmmaking prowess; for others (Agee included), it was the work of an overpraised auteur finally settling down into some semblance of rational professionalism.
His third feature film after the controversial (but now coveted) Citizen Kane (1941), which William Randolph Hearst tried to repress and was an enormous flop at the box office, and The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), which was taken from him by the RKO studio heads after disastrous prescreenings and (in Welles' words) "edited with a lawn mower" from 131 minutes to 88 minutes, Welles made the The Stranger as proof that he could work within the Hollywood studio system. The result is a competent, engaging thriller that bears none of the reckless brilliance that characterized Orson Welles, the efant terrible of American cinema, as Andrew Sarris called him.
The story takes place in the fictional town of Harper, Connecticut, where Welles plays Charles Rankin, a teacher at the local boys' prep school. In actuality, he is Franz Kindler, a Nazi war criminal who ingratiates himself into American society by marrying the innocent Mary Longstreet (Loretta Young), the daughter of a Supreme Court justice (Philip Merivale). Welles plays Rankin with thinly disguised malevolence, a man so thoroughly ingrained with the myth of Aryan supremacy that he lets slip at dinner that Karl Marx wasn't a German because he was a Jew and nervously scribbles a swastika on a notepad while talking on the phone. Screenwriter Anthony Veiller (working from a story by Victor Trivas, adapted by Trivas and Decla Dunning) ensures that Rankin is the vilest of the Nazis by making him the anonymous mastermind behind Germany's attempts at genocide. In effect, Rankin is positioned as not just a willing participant in the Holocast, but its cause.
Following close on Rankin's heels is Wilson (Edward G. Robinson), a dogged member of the War Crimes Commission who tracks him to Harper. But, because there are no pictures of Franz Kindler, Wilson must use other tactics to ensure that Rankin is indeed the Nazi in hiding. This involves Mary's younger brother, Noah, and eventually Mary herself, whose greatest flaw turns out to be her unwavering faith in her new husband.
Despite its generally impersonal nature, The Stranger does contain several notable sequences that hint at Welles' involvement. Cinematographer Russell Metty (who won an Oscar in 1961 for Stanley Kubrick's Spartacus) captures the innocence of Harper in bright shades of gray, suggesting visually how its very purity provides the perfect hiding place for Welles' Nazi. However, the film ensures us that it's not all sweetness, as the townspeople come disturbingly close to turning into a lynch-mob of sorts once Rankin is unmasked. The narrative poses their mob activity as good ol' fashioned American community spirit, but the visuals paint a different picture, one in which the unmistakable, expressionist darkness of film noir invades to great effect.
Much like Alfred Hitchcock's Shadow of a Doubt (1943), The Stranger is most disturbing in its implications about the dangers of feeling safe in a word of surfaces, something that would have rung with particular clarity at the end of World War II. At one point, Mary tells Rankin that he doesn't need to walk her home "because there's nothing to fear in Harper." Of course, as the movie makes clear, there is plenty to be afraid of, most of all in a place like Harper where the charm and ease of small-town life can hide the worst of human evil.
If The Stranger was an example of what Welles could do while working fully within the confines of the Hollywood studio system, then The Trial (Le Procès) is an example of what happened when was left completely to his own devices. Welles was originally approached by father-and-son producers Michel and Alexander Salkind (best know in the U.S. for producing the Superman films in the late '70s and early '80s) to direct a film from a literary classic in the public domain. The only one that interested Welles was Franz Kafka's paranoid masterpiece The Trial. Most of the film's production was done in Yugoslavia, but the money dried up quickly and Welles was forced to find ways to finance the production himself, primarily by moving the production to Paris and shooting in the deserted Gare d'Orsay train station.
The result is a singularly unique—though somewhat flawed—literary adaptation that mixes that modern and the baroque with luminous black and white photography and an escalating sense of paranoid hysteria. Visually, Welles employs canted angles and long tracking shots to accentuate his complex use of both expansive, wide-open spaces and small, tightly enclosed rooms with low ceilings to produce feelings of paranoia and vulnerability—the film seems to be about the surrender of the human body to space. It takes place in a world of heavy shadows and strangely flashing lights, where dull, modern offices coexist with large, ornate government buildings that look like cathedrals.
The story is about an everyday man named Joseph K. (Anthony Perkins in one of the few good roles offered to him post-Psycho) who is accused of a crime that is never named. He spends most of the film trying to clear his name, shuffling through a bureaucratic nightmare of papers and proceedings (Welles himself plays a bed-ridden attorney whose nymphomaniac mistress seduces Joseph).
The Trial doesn't always make sense, but, then again, it's not supposed to. Taking place in an unnamed country, it mixes elements of democracy and totalitarianism, with Joseph K. bitterly complaining about the trampling of his civil rights to police officers who simply materialize in his bedroom one morning and riffle through all his belongings without a search warrant and refuse to tell him of what crime he's being accused. Perkins is quite effective as the harried protagonist, exuding as he does a kind of innocence that is tinged with a slight twist of inner menace. The central dilemma of the story is that we never know for sure whether or not Joseph K. is innocent—and neither does he.
However, in the end, what we remember about Welles' The Trial is the stunning imagery. An elaborate tracking shot of an enormous office space filled with endless rows of hundreds of workers banging away on typewriters (one can see the influence on Terry Gilliam's Brazil) ... Joseph K. running through a maze-like system of hallways where the walls are only cage-like horizontal slats ... Joseph K. being seduced by the mistress (Romy Schneider) and falling backward in slow motion into an enormous pile of books. All of these highly stylized moments are memorable shards of a complex, sometimes maddening excursion into a world of utter frustration that shows Welles coming close to achieving the sense of artistry he wielded in his best films.
|Citizen Welles: The Stranger / The Trial|
|Aspect Ratio||1.33:1 (The Stranger) |
1.66:1 (The Trial)
|Audio||Dolby Digital 5.1 surround|
|Supplements|| Audio commentary on both films by film critic Jeffrey Lyons |
Hearts of Age 1934 short film by Orson Welles (with commentary)
Production and restoration featurette
Still photo galleries
|Release Date||December 4, 2001|
|Both The Stranger and The Trial have been digitally restored and given new transfers for this two-disc release. FOCUSfilm has had a somewhat spotty record in terms of transfer quality, so it was with some amount of trepidation that I approached these films. I was pleasantly surprised to find that both films look good, even if they fall short of the visual quality of Warners' recent Citizen Kane or Criterion's Notorious DVDs. The Stranger, presented in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio, is the lesser of the two, as the image is notably soft throughout, thus making fine details difficult to register at times. Contrast looks good throughout, and the image is definitely clear of any artifacts or debris. The Trial looks a bit better, although it, too, is somewhat soft. The packaging lists the aspect ratio as 1.85:1, but it is much closer to 1.66:1. Detail level is higher on this transfer, which is especially gratifying given all the complex visuals and impressive interiors used in the film (although, as it is not anamorphic, one wonders how much better it could have looked). As with The Stranger, The Trial is largely free of any nicks, scratches, dirt, or other artifacts that might mar the image.|
|Both films have been given new Dolby Digital 5.1-channel surround mixes. As with any remix that starts with a monaural soundtrack, the multiple-channel mix is only moderately effective. For the most part, the soundtracks remain clearly situated in the center channel, although the musical scores have been nicely spaced out, and a few sound effects here and there (such as the explosion at the end of The Trial) have been expanded into the surround channels. The restoration of the soundtracks has been largely effective, as there are no noticeable pops or crackles, although some ambient hiss can be heard during both films.|
| Jeffery Lyons, the well-known film and theater critic at WNBC-TV, offers enthusiastic screen-specific audio commentaries for both films. Lyons seems to know a great deal about Welles (he has certainly done his homework), and he has some fascinating behind-the-scenes details and biographical information about the performers to offer, as well as his own thoughts on the films. His commentary sometimes bogs down into detailed narration of what is happening on-screen, but it is generally lively and enjoyable to listen to. |
A very nice supplement is Welles' rarely seen 1934 10-minute experimental short film Hearts of Age, which he made when he was still a teenager. Although the image quality is shoddy—soft and filled with dirt, debris, and vertical scratches—it is still a joy to finally get to see it (although it is a supremely bizarre and creepy work, not to mention racist). As it is a silent film, Jeffrey Lyons contributes a screen-specific audio commentary. The only downside is that you can't turn the commentary off, so if you want to watch the film silently, you have to mute your stereo.
Also include is a 19-minute featurette about the production and restoration of the two films. Narrated by Welles historian Richard France (who had also recorded audio commentaries for the films that were rejected for one reason or another), it looks briefly at the production histories of both films, offering some behind-the-scenes photographs and a lot of stills. The second half of the documentary focuses entirely on the digital restoration of the films' video and audio. This sections features interviews with restoration producer Michael Dawson, audio engineer Jason Mallow, president of Sensory Technologies Sean McKee, and audio engineer John Blum (who is, unfortunately, out of focus throughout his entire interview). There are also several sequences shown in "before" and "after" versions to give you a sense of what has been improved (primarily, contrast and the removal of dirt and artifacts), although there are no audio comparisons.
Lastly, the discs include original theatrical trailers for both films as well as still photo galleries for both films that include both production stills and behind-the-scene photographs.
Copyright © 2001 James Kendrick